Star parties are nighttime group telescopic
observing sessions, and they are a primary reason why astronomy
enthusiasts join RAC. However, star parties are more than just a time
for RAC members to view the night sky. They are also opportunities for
the public to learn about astronomy, telescopes, and how to observe.
table below summarizes this year's RAC star party dates. RAC public star
parties, shown in bold
black text, are held at prominent public locations such
as Caledon Natural Area.
Civic organizations, educators, and scout leaders are invited to
contact RAC's Outreach
Scouting Coordinator in advance if they wish to bring a group
to one of the public star parties hosted at Caledon Natural Area. RAC members only events
at Belmont or other locations are denoted by non-bold black and bold red text.
Click on the
Schedule link above the table to download a printable PDF chart of
dates, locations and sky features. (A free copy of Adobe Reader may be
and directions are available later on this page.
RAC Star Party Schedule (Printable PDF)
30 Nov Caledon
28 Dec Caledon
Messier Marathon backup
The monthly star party is held one Saturday
night out of every lunar cycle -- i.e. about once per
month. Generally, these parties are scheduled near the new moon
to ensure the darkest skies possible.
as soon as it is dark enough to see stars and planets, generally half
an hour to an hour after sunset. Visitors arriving at or after dusk
should enter the telescope field using only parking lights since bright
lights reverse visual night adaptation of those already observing.
People bringing telescopes should arrive before sunset to allow time
for equipment setup without the need for bright lights. If you need
help with your new telescope allow extra time by arriving early -- club
members will be busy setting up their own scopes and will need the
extra time in order to help newcomers.
For more on what
to expect when attending a star party, check out our Star Party Etiquette
page. Looking for something to observe? Visit Observing the Night Sky
to view resources for planning your observing session. Once each year
RAC holds a special all-night star party called a Messier Marathon,
see next section below. For special circumstances, RAC can arrange a public outreach event
for your organization or scout group.
require clear skies and are dependent on the weather. If the forecast
is for cloudy skies the event will be cancelled, no exceptions. We make
a decision based on the forecast -- and if by chance the clouds do
disappear in the evening the event remains cancelled nonetheless. An
up-to-date announcement will be posted in the upper
right corner of the RAC home page.
RAC club star
parties are held at a number of places. Directions to these and other
sites are given in the Locations
section. The most prominent of these are Caledon
Natural Area in King George and Westmoreland
State Park in Westmoreland County.
All events listed
here are free and open to the public. RAC also offers star
parties and other programs for other schools, organizations, and events
that may be open only to people involved in those events. In
addition, RAC members have several opportunities for club-only
astronomy events. If weather forces us to cancel a star
party, we have a backup date at a member's home observatory.
Events at private homes are open to members only. We
distribute information about these events via our monthly
meetings and mailing list to all club members.
What to Expect
First time guests come to
star parties not knowing quite what to expect.
They hope for great views of the heavens, but
they're often not sure when to show up, what the format of the star
party is, how to approach the astronomers, what is expected of them as
guests, etc. On that last point, we have a web page, called Star Party Etiquette, that
lays out the rules of the road for astronomers and guests alike. It's mostly just common
sense and courtesy, designed to ensure that everyone has a safe and
rewarding night, and we recommend that first-timers glance through it
after reading this introduction. Having
said that, here is an informal timeline of a typical observing session.
with lots of gear may arrive up to an hour before sunset to
set up their scopes, particularly those with computer controllers and
those who plan to do astrophotography.
Astronomers with less gear trickle in
later, and some arrive after sunset if their setup is minimal.
guests may arrive by sunset, but many prefer to arrive a half hour
However, it's best not to wait until the sky is completely dark because
car headlights interfere with everyone's night vision, and also it's
difficult and hazardous to find one's way in the dark. While
setting up their gear is a great time to ask about the telescopes and
mounts, particularly if a guest is interested in buying a telescope.
sunset, it takes over an hour for the sky to darken enough for deep sky
observing. The Moon
and planets may be viewed sooner.
However, astronomers with computerized telescopes have one
critical step yet to complete. They must align their
mounts to the first bright stars so their scopes can
quickly locate night sky objects.
This process takes several minutes and a
bit of concentration. Luckily,
not everyone brings such scopes, so
guests can usually find a more talkative astronomer!
an hour or more after sunset,
one of the astronomers may give a short welcome talk. This will introduce
astronomy as it is practiced by amateurs. It also serves to
remind guests of the limitations of amateur gear, important in
calibrating expectations: what
one sees with amateur scopes is by no means the same as what Hubble and
major observatories reveal.
the sky is dark, each astronomer will begin his or her observing
program. Guests are encouraged to
wander from scope to scope, looking though each telescope, chatting
with the astronomer, and then moving on.
By the time the guest has cycled back to
the original scope it is likely that something else will be in view. Feel free to ask
questions; most astronomers love to talk about their hobby and the
it. Our Star
Party Etiquette page provides detail on things like parking,
dressing warmly, night vision and red flashlights, why we don't allow
aerosol bug sprays and such. When you become tired, cold,
hungry, sleepy or have just plain seen enough, let someone know you are
leaving. Try to
exit without shining too much light on the telescope field because
direct exposure to auto headlights will blast the night vision of
everyone who remains!
And thanks for coming out
and sharing the night sky with us!
Each Spring RAC hosts an all-night Messier
Marathon for our members at Caledon
Natural Area. A Messier Marathon is a one-night star party
designed to observe most, if not all of the objects in Charles Messier's famous catalog
of deep sky objects. Messier was a renowned French astronomer, comet
sleuth and member of the French Academy of Sciences in the late 1700s.
During his career he compiled a list of 110 deep sky objects
visible in small telescopes, cataloging them so that in future sweeps
he would not mistake them for comets.
worked with early, primitive equipment. Today, most amateurs have
access to telescopes equal to or better than Messier's. Thus, Messier
objects are relatively easy to observe and make great targets for
beginners and experienced observers alike.
In late March and
early April most Messier objects are visible at our latitude during a
single night, making those months an ideal time to conduct a Marathon.
The date is posted in our downloadable Star
Party Schedule, and a month prior to the event notification
is posted in the RAC News section near the top of the RAC home page. A Messier Marathon data sheet,
useful for recording one's progress through the Messier catalog, is
posted in the the Observer
Data Sheets Section of the Documents
page. Or, you can download a 27-page set of Messier Marathon Charts from the Astronomy
Club of Tulsa. As with all star parties, cloudy skies will
cancel the event.
Outreach Star Parties
In addition to our
regularly scheduled open-to-the-public monthly
star parties, RAC also conducts specially arranged public outreach events for
schools, parks and civic groups, and astronomy merit badge teaching clinics for scout groups.
Outreach events must be arranged in advance through RAC's President. Scouting
events should be arranged through RAC Scouting Coordinator Glenn Holliday. Non-observing
school lectures should be arranged via School Programs Coordinator David Abbou. See our Outreach and Scouting pages for details.
Event Locations &
Caledon Natural Area is located on Rt. 218, King George, VA. Map. Park Brochure & Map.
- Street address
is 11617 Caledon Road King George, VA. A GPS that knows addresses will
take you to the gate.
phone number is 540-663-3861.
- Located along
the Potomac River northwest of the Hwy 301 bridge, near King George,
- Take I-95 exit
130, Rt. 3 east thru Fredericksburg, east on Rt. 218 for about 20
miles, Area on left.
- Or to keep on
bigger roads, take Rt. 3 east, left on Rt. 206 at King George High
School, left on Rt. 218 to Area.
- From Maryland,
take 301 south, cross the Potomac, right on Rt. 206, then right on Rt.
218 to Area.
Last club member
to leave is responsible for securing the area.
is located in Westmoreland County. Map. Park Brochure & Map.
Street address is 1650
State Park Road, Montross, Va. 22520-9717. A GPS that knows addresses
will take you right to the gate.
phone number is 804-493-8821.
- Located along
the Potomac River six miles northwest of Montross just off Route 3 East.
Fredericksburg (I-95), take Rt. 3 east, go about 40 miles to the park's
entrance, turning left onto Rt. 347.
Tappahannock, take U.S. 360 East to Warsaw. Turn left onto Rt. 3 west
at the third stop light. Stay on this road until about six miles past
Montross. Turn right into the park's entrance on Rt. 347..
- From Richmond,
take U.S. 360 East, then follow Tappahannock directions.
- From Tidewater,
take 17 north to Tappahannock. At the second light, past Lowrey's
Restaurant, turn right onto 360 east, then follow Tappahannock
Anna State Park is located in Spotsylvania
County. Map. Park
Brochure & Map.
Street address is 6800 Lawyers Road,
Spotsylvania, VA 22551-9645. A GPS that knows addresses
will take you right to the gate.
Latitude, 38.118281. Longitude, -77.819955.
phone number is 540-854-5503.
Email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
- The park lies adjacent
to Route 601 off Route 208, 25 miles southwest of Fredericksburg and 60
miles northwest of Richmond.
- From I-95, take Exit 118
at Thornburg and travel about four miles on Rt. 606. At Snell, Rt. 606
becomes Rt. 208. Stay on Rt. 208 west for 11 miles. Turn right onto Rt.
601 Lawyers Road and drive three miles. You will see the state park
sign on your left.
- Traveling south on Rt.
522, it is best to go past the state park sign at the Rt. 612
intersection and, instead, stay on Rt. 522 for eight miles. At that
point, you will see Dickinson Store. Just beyond that, turn left onto
Rt. 208 east. Stay on that road for eight miles. You will cross a
bridge. When you get to Rt. 601 (Lawyers Road), turn left and go three
miles. The park sign will be on your left.
the historic home of Revolutionary War hero Light Horse Harry Lee and
the birthplace of Civil War General Robert E Lee. It is located just
off Route 3, near Westmoreland State Park in Westmoreland County.
phone number is 804-493-8038.
- Stratford Hall
is located approximately 40 miles and one hour south-east of
Fredericksburg, just past Westmoreland State Park.Take Route 3 past
Westmoreland and turn left on Route 214, Stratford Hall Road. Proceed
to the Oval in front of the Great House. RAC members have
permission to park and set up their telescopes on the Oval for star
parties. RAC star parties at Stratford Hall are by invitation
of Stratford Hall and are open to the public.
- Click for a map
of the Stratford
Hall Grounds and an aerial overview of the Great House
and the Oval.
is operated by Fredericksburg Parks and Recreation and is located west
of town on River Road.
phone number is 540-372-1086.
Route 3 west from Fredericksburg. Approx. 1 mile west of I-95, turn
RIGHT onto Bragg Road (at Giant food store). Continue 1 mile. Turn LEFT
onto River Road. Park is 2.4 miles on LEFT. (You will wind along the
Rappahannock River, past Clore Bros. Canoe Outfitters, then up steep
hill. Park is another ½ mi. past crest of hill.) Follow gravel road
Mill Park is
also operated by Fredericksburg Parks and Recreation, and it is located
along the Rappahannock River on the edge of historic Old Town at 2216
Caroline Street, Fredericksburg, VA.
phone number is 540-372-1086.
- Take Sophia
Street north from William Street. Sophia ends in a left turn at Pitt
Street. Follow Pitt one block west, then turn right on Caroline Street.
Follow Caroline 3 blocks, then watch for the park entrance on the right.
Old Maury School,
900 Barton Street #111 in Fredericksburg, is a historic building that once held
Fredericksburg's first high school. It is located just southwest of
downtown Fredericksburg, at the corner of Barton Street and George Street.
This is one block off William Street. Enter from Barton Street.
The back side of the school is Maury Stadium, which is still used as
the football stadium for James Monroe High School. There is a parking lot
off Barton Street at the front of the school.
For meetings in the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center Meeting Room,
don't try to enter the main doors of the old school.
Go to the right side of the building and down the stairs to the lower level.
Enter the door at the bottom of the stairs. The meeting room is the
first room you come to.
- From the west, take William Street
(Route 3 business east) towards
downtown Fredericksburg. Turn right on Barton Street. William and
Barton are both one way at this point.
From downtown, take George Street away from
downtown. George Street ends at Barton Street. George and Barton are both one way
at this point.
Skyline Drive is located in Shenandoah
National Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two
sites are used, Big Meadows at mile marker 51 and
the Milam Gap parking area, about 1.5 miles south
of Big Meadows. For small gatherings, Milam Gap is preferred due to
easy access and sheltering from the wind. Lodging, restuarants and a campground are available. Maps.